This list explores some of the best ghostwritten songs by famous artists, which you probably didn’t know were ghostwritten.
Ghostwriting – when someone else other than the recording artist writes a song – is a common practice in popular music. Although we might like to think our favourite artists wrote their own music, this is often not the case.
Interestingly, however, there are some famous artists that have written songs for other famous artists. It may surprise you to find out the names behind some of the greatest hits of the last few decades. Sometimes the ghostwriter is even more famous than the artist who is credited with writing the song.
So let’s dive in and discover twenty famous songs that were written by famous ghostwriters.
20 Songs Written by Famous Ghostwriters
1. ‘American Boy’ – Estelle feat. Kanye West (2008)
Ghostwriters: will.i.am and John Legend
The transatlantic smash hit ‘American Boy’ by British singer and rapper Estelle featuring Kanye owes a debt to will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas. John Legend, who offers backing vocals on the track, is also credited as one of the songwriters.
The song from Etelle’s 2008 album Shine topped the UK and Belgian charts, reaching number nine on the Billboard Hot 100.
The track was produced by will.i.am, with the full credits including Ethan Hendrickson, Josh Lopez, Caleb Speir, and Keith Harris.
2. ‘Love Yourself’ – Justin Bieber (2015)
Ghostwriter: Ed Sheeran
It may be one of Justin Bieber’s greatest hits, but ‘Love Yourself’ was actually written by another singer-songwriter heart-throb from the other side of the pond – Ed Sheeran.
Ed Sheeran considered the song too personal and raw to put his name to it, fearing that it could cause offense. Luckily for Bieber, it was a perfect fit for him. The stripped-back song is based around an acoustic guitar, and features Sheeran on backing vocals.
The song was a number one hit all over the world. It peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and spent six weeks at the top of the UK singles chart.
3. ‘I Will Always Love You’ – Whitney Houston (1992)
Ghostwriter: Dolly Parton
Whitney Houston’s rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ is the best-selling songs of all time by a female artist. However, because the song is so famously associated with Whitney, few people know that it was actually Dolly Parton who penned it.
First recorded by Dolly Parton in 1973, and released as a country single in 1974, Parton’s recording achieved moderate success, topping Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, and peaking at fifty-three on the Billboard Hot 100.
Whitney’s recording which was made for the 1992 film The Bodyguard topped almost every chart worldwide, won a plethora of awards, and sold a staggering 20 million copies. The song is arguably the most famous ghostwritten song of all time.
4. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ – Sinead O’Connor (1990)
Irish singer Sinead O’Connor’s heart-wrenching rendition of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ was a global phenomenon. But few people are aware that it was actually a cover of a song written by Prince.
Prince penned a number of songs that other artists did well from, and this one is certainly amongst the most famous examples. Prince first wrote the song in 1985 for his side project, The Family.
Originally a breakup ballad, Sinead O’Connor reinterpreted the song to make it about loss and grief, dedicating it to her mother who died the year the song was first released.
Prince celebrated the success that O’Connor found with the song, describing it as ‘cosmic meaning’ that she was able to pick up the song and take it to a wider audience.
O’Connor’s version topped almost every single chart in the world, including the Billboard Hot 100.
5. ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ – Britney Spears (2001)
Ghostwriters: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo
Britney Spears is one of the best-selling female artists of all time, but it’s fair to say that some of the songwriters she worked with helped her on her way.
‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ which featured on Britney’s 2001 self-titled third album, was amongst her hits, although by no means her biggest. The song made the top ten in charts all over the world, and reached number twenty-seven on the Billboard Hot 100.
The track was written by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo – who as a pair go under the name The Neptunes. The song is one of several number one hits ghostwritten by the legendary Pharrell Williams and his accomplice Chad Hugo.
6. ‘Rock Your Body’ – Justin Timberlake (2003)
Ghostwriters: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo
One of the legendary tracks from Justin Timberlake’s 2002 album Justified ‘Rock Your Body’ reached the top ten in charts all over the world, peaking at number five on the Billboard Hot 100.
The iconic track was co-written and produced by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, aka The Neptunes. The infectious ‘Rock Your Body’ was not the only JT track that the legendary duo worked on either.
The opening track on Justified – ‘Señorita’ – was also ghostwritten by Williams and Hugo. The latin-influenced R&B track peaked in the top twenty in several countries, reaching position twenty-seven on the Billboard Hot 100.
7. ‘Red Red Wine’ – UB40 (1983)
Ghostwriter: Neil Diamond
‘Red Red Wine’ is one of UB40’s definitive tracks. First released by the British reggae-pop band in 1983, the song topped the UK singles chart, finding moderate success in the US. In 1988 the song was rereleased and went to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
The song was originally written by Neil Diamond, and appears on his 1967 album Just for You. As an ‘album song,’ it received little attention until UB40 took up the track and gave it new life.
Neil Diamond was a phenomenally successful artist and songwriter. With over 130 million records sold worldwide, he is one of the best-selling artists of all time.
Yet, despite Neil Diamond’s success as an artist, very few people recognise the track as a Neil Diamond cover. Even more amusingly, the track is often mistakenly attributed to Bob Marley, who was the foremost reggae artist of the era.
8. ‘Respect’ – Aretha Franklin (1967)
Ghostwriter: Otis Redding
If you were to guess Aretha Franklin’s most famous song, ‘Respect’ would probably be a strong contender. Yet few people realise that ‘Respect’ is actually an Otis Redding cover.
The song was first released by Redding in 1965 with different instrumentation and a very different atmosphere. Aretha, who is known by the honorific title of the ‘Queen of Soul,’ took the somewhat desperate tone of Redding’s original and turned it into a song of female empowerment, making it a second-wave 70s feminist anthem.
Otis Redding’s 1965 version peaked at number thirty-five on the Billboard Hot 100. Franklin’s version, released two years later in 1967, peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song was later covered by Motown icons The Supremes and The Temptations, further spreading the song’s popularity, and reinforcing Franklin’s interpretation of and association with the song. The song is definitely amongst the most famous ghostwritten songs ever.
9. ‘Diamonds’ – Rihanna (2014)
Rihanna is one of the most-successful female artists of all time. Not to detract from her success or her obvious talents, but a number of Rihanna’s greatest hits come courtesy of the ghostwriters she worked with.
Rihanna’s 2014 hit ‘Diamonds’ is amongst her greatest of all time. The song topped the majority of major charts worldwide, including the Billboard Hot 100. The song’s video has also been widely celebrated. It draws on the themes of air, water, earth, and fire, and was directed by Anthony Mandler.
The song was written by Sia, along with Benny Blanco and LA-based Norwegian duo Stargate. Sia allegedly wrote the lyrics in 14 minutes.
10. ‘Gettin’ Jiggy wit It’ – Will Smith (1998)
Ghostwriters: Nas, Nile Rogers
‘Gettin’ Jiggy wit It’ is a song that harks back to simpler times when Will Smith was known for light-heartened pop-rap hits like ‘Men In Black,’ ‘Miami,’ and ‘Gettin’ Jiggy wit It.’
Before we get to the matter of Nas’ involvement with the track, it should first be noted that ‘Gettin’ Jiggy wit It’ samples Sister Sledge’s 1979 hit ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer,’ earning Nile Rogers a songwriting credit.
Nas’ involvement with the track is a little controversial. Nas himself said that he was present in the studio when Smith was recording, and contributed a couple of lines. While Nas seemed to play down his involvement, music exec Steve Stoute, on the other hand, made it pretty clear that Nas played an important role.
It would appear that Nas either didn’t want to be associated with the song, or didn’t want to tarnish Smith’s reputation, since ghostwriting is something of a stigma with rap music. Either way, even Nas’ own admission makes it clear that he was a low-key ghostwriter on this track, even if he isn’t officially credited.
11. ‘Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang’ – Dr. Dre (1993)
Ghostwriter: The D.O.C.
It is well-known in the rap community that the legendary rapper and producer Dr. Dre used ghostwriters on several of his songs. In the case of ‘Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang’ it was Dallas rapper The D.O.C who lent a hand.
The D.O.C was a seminal figure in G-funk, with his album No One Can Do It Better (1989) often cited as one of the essential gangsta rap records. The rapper experienced serious damage to his voice in a car accident, but stayed in the rap game by writing for the likes of Dre and Snoop Dogg.
The D.O.C allegedly wrote the lyrics for ‘Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,’ including the line, ‘like my ***** D.O.C / no one can do it better’ – a great line that’s even more amusing when you know that it was ghostwritten by the man himself..
Aside from the lyrics on ‘Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,’ the track samples Leon Haywood’s 1975 soul hit ‘I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You.’ The song peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100.
12. ‘Milkshake’ – Kelis (2003)
Ghostwriters: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo
Kelis’ slightly outrageous R&B pop hit ‘Milkshake’ is the artist’s greatest hit – and certainly her best-remembered song. Peaking at number three on the Billboard Hot 100, the song came from her 2003 album Tasty.
Known for its low-key iconic refrain ‘my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,’ the song’s playfully suggestive lyrics and video, like it or not, made it unforgettable.
Once again we have the dynamic duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo – The Neptunes – to thank for this one.
13. ‘Baby’ – Justin Bieber (2010)
Ghostwriter: Christina Milian
The debut song that propelled Justin Bieber to international fame came partly thanks to fellow pop star Christina Milian. The teen-pop hit ‘Baby’ was the lead single from Bieber’s debut album (2010), and represented the beginnings of the heartthrob’s global expansion.
The song is by no means the artist’s most successful or most popular. It reached the top ten in several singles charts around the world. But for a time, the video was the number one most-disliked video on YouTube. To this day it still ranks high on the most-disliked video list.
The song was co-written by Bieber along with Christopher ‘Tricky’ Stewart and Terius ‘The-Dream’ Nash, and pop sensation Christina Milian, who was, at the time, married to Nash.
14. ‘Work’ – Rihanna (2016)
The Barbadian superstar Rihanna makes the list again with her earworm of a song ‘Work.’ The smash hit track’s simple refrain ‘work, work, work, work, work, work’ lived rent-free in the heads of millions of commuters for the whole of 2016 and beyond.
The song topped the Billboard Hot 100, and became one of the best-selling digital singles of all time, with over 32 million sales. The song featured on her 2016 album Anti, along with other hits ‘Needed Me’ and ‘Kiss It Better.’
The songwriting credits include several contributors, most notably Canadian producer and rapper Jahron Brathwaite, better known as PartyNextDoor. Drake, whose vocals feature on the track, also makes the credits, along with Boi-1da who produced the track.
15. ‘Hollaback Girl’ – Gwen Stefani (2005)
Songwriters: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo
First known as the singer of No Doubt, Gwen Stefani released her debut solo album Love. Angel. Music Baby. in 2004. The 90s hip-hop influenced track ‘Hollaback Girl’ was the record’s most successful single.
The song made the charts in countries worldwide, and reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for an impressive four weeks.
Once again, we have Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo to thank for this one.
The ambiguous lyrics of ‘Hollaback Girl’ have led to some speculation about the song’s meaning, with no clear explanation. Pharrell Williams revealed that inspiration came from British model Naomi Campbell, who, on the talk show No Filter, allegedly said ‘I’m sorry, I have a name, like, I’m not no hollaback girl.’
16. ‘Manic Monday’ – The Bangles (1986)
Everyone knows The Bangles’ 1986 hit ‘Manic Monday.’ But few people know the story behind it.
Prince makes the list for a second time with this one. According to one account, the smash hit was written especially for the band by Prince, after he saw them performing in Los Angeles. The artist sent them a tape with two original songs that he wanted them to record. One of them was ‘Manic Monday.’
According to another account, the song was originally written for the band Apollonia 6. After not being used by the band, Prince allegedly gave the song to The Bangle’s guitarist Susanna Hoffs, in the hopes of winning her affection.
The song peaked at number two in the Billboard Hot 100, and the top ten in countries around the world. It is known as The Bangle’s definitive song.
17. ‘We Found Love’ – Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris
Songwriter: Calvin Harris
Rihanna makes the list once again with the wildly popular anthem ‘We Found Love’ – another hugely successful song that was performed by Rihanna and written by another famous artist.
The song topped the Billboard Hot 100, and spent a stunning ten weeks there non-consecutively. It also topped the charts in twenty-five other countries. It has over 10 million certified sales.
The full songwriting credit for ‘We Found Love’ goes to the Scottish DJ and producer Calvin Harris, who is credited as featuring on the song, and appears in the video.
Calvin Harris has stated that the song was the most successful song he has ever worked on, and emphasised that it could not have been such a huge success without Rihanna, saying ‘no one could ever take it as far as she did.’
18. ‘Rocket Man’ – Elton John (1972)
Ghostwriter: Bernie Taupin
Sir Elton John may be known as the Rocket Man, and may have had a biopic film named in that vein, but the song wouldn’t exist without Bernie Taupin.
The duo’s long-term collaboration has been described as one of the most successful songwriting collaborations in music history. Taupin shares the songwriting credits on the majority of Sir Elton’s biggest hits.
Amongst the hits that Taupin wrote the lyrics for are ‘Your Song’ (1970), ‘Tiny Dancer’ (1972), ‘Candle in the Wind’ (1973 and 1997), ‘Crocodile Rock’ (1973), ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ (1976), ‘I’m Still Standing’ (1983), and ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’ (1983).
In fact, you will be hard-pressed to find an Elton John song that Taupin didn’t pen the lyrics for.
19. ‘Pretty Hurts’ – Beyoncé (2014)
The story of Beyoncé’s ‘Pretty Hurts’ is a strange one. The song is not amongst Beyoncé’s biggest hits, failing to enter the Billboard Hot 100. However, the track managed to top Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Songs chart.
‘Pretty Hurts’ was originally written by Sia – an artist who has penned several hits for other big artists. The song was first handed to Katy Perry, who allegedly didn’t see the email that Sia sent her about the song.
The song was next passed to Rhianna, who was unable to record the song due to management complications. The song was then finally sent to Beyoncé who took it on.
A third-wave feminist anthem, the song addresses themes of personal empowerment and body image.
Katy Perry allegedly loved the song when she eventually heard Beyoncé’s version. She texted Sia saying that she was hurt that Sia never sent it to her, to which Sia responded ‘check your email.’ So that story goes!
20. ‘I Do Not Hook Up’ – Kelly Clarkson (2009)
Ghostwriter: Katy Perry
Kelly Clarkson’s dance-rock anthem ‘I Do Not Hook Up’ is amongst her biggest hits, and is one of two songs that Katy Perry passed on to her.
Reaching a respectable position twenty in the Billboard Hot 100, the song was a success in the States, although it only reached into the top fifty in most European charts. On the songwriting credits, Katy Perry appears along with Kara DioGuardi and Greg Wells.
Katy Perry also passed the song ‘Long Shot’ to Clarkson – a track which Perry had originally recorded herself, but never released. Both tracks appear on Clarkson’s 2009 album All I Ever Wanted. The album topped the Billboard 200 album chart.
Do ghostwriters get paid royalties?
Yes. If a ghostwriter is officially credited as a songwriter (which they almost always will be), they will get paid royalties. The calculations of how much the songwriter gets paid depend on a wide variety of factors, and it can be a relatively small slice of the pie. That said, if a song becomes a hit, that small slice can build to some serious cash.
Which rappers use ghostwriters?
Ghostwriting is frowned upon in the rap and hip-hop scene, but it is used by one or two high profile artists. For example, it is well-known that Dr. Dre uses ghostwriters. Famous examples include The D.O.C writing ‘Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,’ Jay-Z writing ‘Still D.R.E,’ and Eminem writing Dre’s lines on ‘Forgot about Dre.’
Header image: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo aka The Neptunes
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